Friday, April 10, 2015
Except for All the Others
Except for Fenway Park, there is no green grass in New England right now. Still, I'm sympathetic to those who skim the law review submissions angsting thread, close their browser window in embarassment when a colleague happens by, and then think to themselves, "There's got to be another way."
In that spirit, I thought it might useful to our reform conversation to report my experiences with peer-reviewed econ and l&e journals. I've had half a dozen or so, of which one was constructive, pretty fast, and what I expected of a process run by fellow professionals. The others...well, some are still ongoing. Suffice it to say that it's a lot like sitting in a busy dentist's office, only for 8 to 12 months and without any good magazines.
I don't think it's unreformable. Indeed, I think a good starting place for a conversation about where to go with legal scholarship would be to talk more about which system's flaws are easier to mitigate.
So, for example, it's possible that the peer-review market could function a lot better with better information. There's almost no reliable information about how long each journal takes, on average, to complete reviews. (In fact, it's a little bizarre that a profession whose central premise is the efficiency of well-informed markets would tolerate such an opaque system.) Mandatory compilation and disclosure of that information would probably create at least some competitive pressure to bring those times down, which might eliminate at least the worst instances of needless delay. There is a site for griping about long waits, but it is surely not a representative sample. A laudable exception is AER, which reports a cumulative distribution table (see p.623) of wait times.
At a minimum, journals published by professional associations, such as ALER and JELS, should lead by example on this front. Board members, are you reading?
Consider this variation on Jessica's proposal:
1. You can submit to no more than 20 (10? 15?) journals at a time;
2. Those journals have to give you an answer within a month;
3. You are required to accept the first offer you receive;
4. You cannot resubmit the same paper to a journal for a year;
5. Submission season operates year-round.
The cap of #1 would solve a lot of the problem faced by top law reviews, which is the overwhelming volume. #5 would also help with this. It would also force self-selection by authors, so that you don't have every random person who writes an article submitting to every journal in creation (and this strategy makes sense given the current world in which there is no or low cost to massive submission). It also forces self-selection at the other end, so that authors who would truly be fine with an offer from an obscure specialty journal give a clear signal to that effect by submitting to those journals.
#2 would put some pressure on journals to render an opinion efficiently, though an enforcement mechanism might be tough. Perhaps it could just be that after a month, that journal is removed from the author's max of 20-odd simultaneous submissions.
#3 reinforces the self-selection effects discussed above.
#4 is a way to avoid repeated submissions in the same journals on a repeated basis, which could be a concern if you remove the twice-a-year submission season approach we have now.
#5 is another way to stave off the mania of spring being a crazy out of control season and the rest being a dead zone. I'd also love a world in which you could finish an article when it was ready instead of forcing it out in February, since it's that or wait another year.
Would it be hard to get buy-in? Dunno. One rule that I think most professors respect and adhere to is that once you accept an offer, you stick with it, even if other stuff comes in afterward. There's no formal enforcement of this, but the norm works pretty well. If profs respected these norms, then the system might work. Technical limits could also help, like a system that did not permit >20 simultaneous submissions, and gave clear notice once an offer had issued so the other journals had the piece automatically withdrawn.
Posted by: DF | Apr 14, 2015 7:46:41 PM
I like this idea, but I suspect that buy-in from all the top journals would be tough. What's in it for them? They lose the "screening" benefits of the expedite system, and their total submissions are unlikely to drop much. Having said that, a number of top journals are pretty good at using in-house screening without relying on expedites.
Posted by: BDG | Apr 14, 2015 2:40:13 PM
What Jessica said. Two points in support.
First, lengthening the submissions season would be a good thing, because it would slow down the process. Journals would get a steadier but much smaller stream of articles, making the review process less frenetic. And it would make the process much less dependent on narrow submission windows. We already have something a bit like this in the way journals handle their online supplements, which strike me as the most vibrant part of the law review system at the moment.They're open for business all year round and they publish much more interesting work on a per-page basis.
Second, law reviews could move substantially toward this system unilaterally. A journal that refused to honor expedite requests and which gave authors a short -- e.g. hours rather than days -- window to accept or decline offers would effectively opt out of the current system. It wouldn't quite compel authors to take the first offer, but it would move authors' incentives in a direction that would make them much more inclined to accept any offer they receive.
Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Apr 13, 2015 9:56:15 AM
I think one could mitigate a lot of the disaster that law review publishing has become, without losing what I think are the considerable benefits as compared with peer-reviewed journals (i.e., that the experience of editing a law journal has genuine education benefits for students, and that the exercise of going through a cite check helps keep law journal publications honest and of relatively high quality), by implementing a pretty small change: requiring article submitters to accept the first publication offer tendered by a law journal to which they have submitted their article. That would cut down on the number of submissions editors need to review, and get rid of the worst of the gaming that goes on now. It would also, I suspect, lengthen the submission seasons, since lower ranked journals would not receive submissions until they had been rejected by higher-ranked journals.
Posted by: Jessica Litman | Apr 13, 2015 9:41:43 AM